One does not walk into a German arms fair and expect to be greeted by bagpipes belting out rousing martial tunes, probably last heard by Germans during the Normandy invasion in 1944, as Lord Lovat’s commandos stormed ashore and ‘sent them homewards to think again’.
I’m hoping the joke went right over the heads of the hosts. The wailing could, of course, be traced to the part of the hall where Rigby had set up a Scottish castle sitting room, complete with Chesterfields, fireplace, stag’s heads and tartan carpet. The perfect setting to sip regularly at the special edition Rigby single malt that was being generously poured out to visitors to lubricate their enthusiasm for the latest unveiling – the new Rigby Highland Stalker rifle. Rigby’s sitting room was the most convivial and memorable installation at the huge IWA showcase for all things shooting and hunting but they were not the only Brits in attendance.
IWA was full of the British Gun Trade, be they clothing suppliers, gun makers or auctioneers. Nick Holt was there, attended by his minions, displaying a marvellous array of rifles and shotguns, including some basically unused Holland & Holland 12-bores. Effervescent as ever, Nick buzzed from one important visitor to the next, providing the personal attention that has made his firm such a success. Putting in the hard yards at foreign shows, like IWA and SCI and DSC has kept Holt’s at the top of the tree for a decade and the hard work involved is easily overlooked by the casual observer.
Nick told me he is hosting the annual Holt’s charity fundraising shoot on 4th August, at Sandringham, in aid of the Gamekeepers’ Welfare Trust. Teams are invited, the day will be entertaining and the cause is good. I’ll be there with a motley bunch of Vintage Guns ringers to make some noise and hope to see a decent turn out from other gun trade businesses. Contact Holt’s for details of how to enter a team.
While at IWA, I ran into Tristan Breijer, now re-located to Vienna and working for Johan Springer. Springer, long-established in Vienna as retailers, have jumped into the auction business and plan to use their contacts in Europe to source fine guns from European collections and to specialise in sales of high quality guns by European manufacturers. I have to admit to a bias for English guns and rifles and, while I appreciate the quality of many foreign made guns, especially some of the Belgian side-locks by Branquart and Defournay, I never get really excited about them in general. In British sales they do less well than they might.
I wonder if Springer will manage to take a chunk of the Holt’s pie with this move. Will Brexit, whatever that materialises as, make mainland Europe and the Euro a more attractive place and currency to buyers based in Europe, than the UK? Time will tell and we shall see how Holt’s respond to the challenge. I don’t expect they will take it lightly.
Among the guns on display at Springer’s stand, I saw, in readiness for the next auction, an unusual W&C Scott 10-bore hammer gun. The hammers were of late 1860s style but it had later, foreign proofed, steel barrels. I think it was a double rifle when it was made; probably with short, fully-rifled damascus barrels. The action and locks were engraved with European big game; bears, chamois etc, so it is very unlikely to have started life as a shotgun.
Tristan is busy digging up provenance. He thinks and hopes it may be traced back to the end of the Romanov dynasty. If it does; and if it can be proven, then the potential value could skyrocket. I remember Holt’s selling a Purdey, made for Tsar Nicholas II, making ten times the high estimate, a few years ago.
Back in London for Holt’s in the second week of March, a very lively and interesting evening of socialising followed the viewing. Sir Johnny Scott gave a speech and much wine was quaffed and excellent canapés munched by an audience of well-known faces from the gun trade. Catering has taken a step forwards, with The Shotgun Chef and his team preparing the food for the viewing party and an excellent English breakfast, followed by roast venison dinner on sale day.
Taxidermy was back with a vengeance. A magnificent pair of standing giraffe shoulder mounts, designed to flank a staircase or doorway were very tempting. Expected to make something over a thousand pounds each, not many will have a room big enough to do them justice. An Arab friend of mine bid close to £4,000 for the pair but expects to more than quadruple his money when he retails them back home. Around the room there was an impressive array of African animals and taxidermied birds. If you had a peep at the Sealed Bids sale, there was even a pair of giraffe skulls, should you have a use for them. Try your luck at £60.
I made a deal with a client a week prior to the sale. I sold him anice pair of Holland & Holland side-locks and was casing them in a period leather case. He was tempted but not totally enamoured with the case and kept referring to one Holt’s had in their sale. So, I told him, “do the deal and I’ll buy the case at Holt’s and put the guns into that for you’. Deal done, I now had to buy that case for whatever it cost! It was a good case, oak and leather, H&H label, canvas outer etc. Bidding was just me and ‘the book’. Success! I drove home with a £910 gun case. Ouch.
The gun count seemed down on the normal number but among the lots I had an eye on two Purdey hammer 20-bores. Both in need of some work but both restorable and rare, I felt it would be a good opportunity to try and secure them for a client and we decided to make these the focus, as well as several good cases and a Greener 16-bore.
I say the gun count ‘seemed down’ but that was a bit of a fallacy. There were plenty of guns. It was just that the huge number of pistols in the sale did not take much room to display; but they certainly took the same time to sell as bigger guns. The two auctioneers sweated away as a tag team and got through the bulk of it successfully, the cash till ringing up in steady increments.
In the event, I managed to buy the snap under-lever Purdey I wanted but missed out on the higher priced top-lever one. That was fine, I actually thought the one I bought, for a bid of £6,500, the better gun. The Greener was very little used but one barrel had a small bulge at the chokes, which needs sorting out so we got it for the low estimate.
History buffs will have noted the presence of a Purdey that once belonged to Sir Ralph Payne Gallwey. Re-barrelled and later shortened, it was, none-the-less, a proper piece of shooting memorabilia. Sir Ralph, author of the wonderfully eccentric ‘High Pheasants in Theory & Practice’ was a giant of the sport in his day and a classic Victorian enthusiast for engineering, sport and ballistics with both the time and the money to indulge his passions. There is a well known Vanity Fair caricature of him with pipe in hand, holding a Purdey. Unless he had another, it is, presumably, the very Purdey Holt’s had for sale. It was reserved at £8,000 and dd not quite make it – so remains in the after sales catalogue.
One of the most unusual lots at Holt’s was a quartet of Army & Navy side-locks. They had been made in 1914 as two pairs. One pair were made with 28” barrels and the other with 30” barrels; for two different men. Each gun originally cost 50 guineas and was described as ‘best quality’.
Clearly, somebody had collected both pairs together and re-modelled them to make a quartet. They are now numbered ‘1,2,3,4’ on barrels and guards; and the 30” guns have been re-barrelled to 28” to match the other pair. What’s more they have all had the stocks replaced to a hefty 16” LOP and they feature Hodges’ patent single trigger of 1899. Assembled in an oak and leather motor case and fully re-colour hardened, whoever commissioned the project must have spent a fortune.
To undertake it now would cost £20,000 in re-stocking, £17,000 in re-barrelling and another £4,000 in engraving, hardening and incidentals, plus upwards of £1,000 to case them. A total of over £40,000 – not including the cost of buying the four guns to start with. Holt’s had them estimated at £10,000 – £15,000. The bidding for these rattled along nicely to a winning bid of £22,000.
A slightly nervous time for the auctioneers occurred when a pair of very little used and recent manufacture Boss 12-bores hovered around the reserve with a telephone bidder sticking on £95,000, rather than the £100,000 needed to buy them. If you want them and can afford to pay £95,000, then what difference does another five grand make?
People can be funny when it comes to bidding and David Porter had to knock them down as unsold. However, there was some quick chat on the telephone and by the time I was preparing to leave, it was whispered to me that the deal was done and the Boss pair was on the way to a new home. More importantly, Holt’s had just bagged a little over twenty grand that looked to have gone begging. All these little personal dramas are what help provide auction days with the frisson of danger and the small adrenalin rush associated with success.
March sees us back in the auction rooms in London. Holt’s start the year with their invitation to viewings and drinks in Hammersmith. The sale is on March 16th.
However, for many auction visitors and holders, the lure of IWA beckons and I shall be heading in that direction on March 4th-6th to see what the wider gun trade has to offer. It is interesting to see new developments and catch up socially with others in similar businesses. While I’m sure there will be lots to see, I have to admit that the lure of Nuremberg is largely the opportunity to meet up with friends, eat some good food, smoke a cigar or two and swap stories. I believe it is called ‘networking’ when done on someone else’s bill! Unfortunately, I’ll be picking up my own tab this time.
Many come to the auction rooms to find value. They are looking for guns that cost less than they would in the showroom of a dealer. Granted, the guns may need some work, may not be prepared for sale in the manner a dealer would prepare them, and they come with no guarantees. However, if you know your guns, you can come out of the sales ahead.
One of the avenues for the private buyer to explore when seeking value is the avenue of un-fashionability. Every period favours certain configurations. We happen to be living at a time when the market prefers long barrels: 29” or more. Many people dismiss shorter barrelled guns, even those who have rarely, if ever, used them.
My own experience of shooting short barrelled guns has shown me that they can be lots of fun and very effective for driven partridges and covert pheasants and I have seen them used to good effect on the grouse moor and walking-up game birds on rough ground. They do not suit the very high pheasant brigade, nor are they suited to sporting clays but 26”, 27” and 28” barrels were used all over the country for sixty years, from the twenties to the nineties and killed a lot of game. They still can.
If you are a shooter interested in quality and looking for guns to use, short barrelled guns are looking very good value. Some marques buck the trend for depressed prices. Churchill Premiere XXVs and Holland & Holland ‘Royal Brevis’ models are still selling for good money when they turn up in good condition. The brand recognition of these models helps them find willing buyers.
I noticed a pair of Charles Hellis 26” barrelled side-lock ejectors at Holt’s last sale; very pretty, well made guns, but they are listed again in March, having gone unsold. The 1930s was a time when short barrels were the fashion. Not only do we see most makers gravitating towards shorter barrels in their production guns, a lot of older guns were shortened.
A case in point is the Purdey (for sale at Holts) that belonged to the great eccentric sportsman Sir Ralph Payne Gallwey – author of ‘High Pheasants in Theory & Practice’. It was bought by Purdey from his widow and shortened, in 1934, to 28” from the original 30” – that length then being seen as ‘old fashioned’. These things tend to work in cycles! Shortening a gun effectively requires re-alignment of the barrels and the addition of some choke – it is a skilled job. Some guns were simply chopped down with a saw and the shooting can be affected detrimentally as a result.
Elsewhere in the catalogue, we find peripheral items that need the exposure of an auction room to generate interest. Selling a Purdey side-lock in good conditions should not pose too great a challenge for most dealers. However, I found myself with a tiny watch-chain decorative pistol with ivory handle. Not what my customers typically look for and very hard to value. I put it into Holt’s and they estimated £300 – £500, which seemed promising. We’ll just have to see if collectors find it and what interest it will get.
I know Holt’s generate a very high ‘hit list’ of people looking on-line at their website and catalogue but wondered slightly if they might be indulging in a little gamesmanship to encourage, otherwise uninterested, traffic to their pages.
One listing; ‘A Full Mount of a Standing Black Cock’ might, I suspect, attract viewers who were not necessarily searching Google for taxidermied game birds! At least, I’m assuming it is a game bird, as, at the time of writing, no photograph was attached to the listing. It rather reminds me of when my young cousin was told to research ‘Black Holes’ for her science project in the days before parental controls on computers were commonplace. I found it more amusing than her mother did.
Hammer guns of quality are ever harder to find; and increasingly expensive. Holt’s had two Purdey 20-bores in the sale this time. Both nice examples and carrying hefty price tags. The last time I had one of these was back in 2007 and I sold it for £5,000. The two listed here were carrying estimates of £6,000 – £8,000 for the top-lever gun and £4,000- £6,0000 for the snap under-lever version.
Adding Holt’s commission, that pushes the likely price of the better gun to over £10,000. I think it may do even better than that. The Charles Gordon Purdey 12-bore that sold in December topped £11,000 and that was something of an oddity, though exactly what the buyer wanted – a heavy, long barrelled Purdey for use as a high pheasant gun. With items of rarity like these, the auctions can sometimes generate surprising prices.
I recall a Greener 28-bore boxlock making £8,000. A gun like that is rare and hard to value but I would never have had the courage to put it up at that price, as a dealer. However, there was a punter out there who was happy to pay – and to pay Holt’s fees on top of it. Sometimes the exposure of the auction room is just what a rare gun needs to find its full value.
The recent price hikes by Purdey and Holland & Holland have had an impact on their guns made in the 1990s and later. If properly refurbished and presented ‘as new’, good examples look cheap next to the cost of new guns. A pair of Holland & Holland ‘Modele Deluxe’ would have cost £48,000 in 1991. Today they are comfortably twice that price, each. In fact, £250,000 would be a fair benchmark, once they are cased and delivered. So, a 1990 pair available now at less than half new cost look good value. We can see this in the auction rooms, with Gavin Gardiner getting a very good price, in excess of £70,000 for a pair of 1990 guns.
Away from Holt’s, keep an eye on Gavin Gardiner’s website for news of his first sale of 2017, expected on 12th April, in Bond Street. Bonhams have one listed on 17th May, in Knightsbridge. The catalogues will be illustrated on-line as the auction dates draw near.